Attention to Detail (Part II)

A few days ago I wrote a couple of sentences on how attention to detail separates artists from generalists and the subject came up this weekend while standing in line for Hogwarts at Japan's Universal Studios theme park in Osaka. This was my first time to the park and, I've got to say, Universal has a winning strategy with how they designed and executed on their money-maker, though it's most certainly not due to any careful consideration or mindful approach to park design. One might even say that the park is more enjoyable because of the lack of meticulousness that is seen in every aspect at the country's other large theme parks: Tokyo DisneyLand and DisneySea.

The family and I didn't get to spend a great deal of time at Universal Studios this weekend, primarily because we planned it at the last minute and because I had to be home for an important work-related meeting in the evening of the second day. That said, we did get to enjoy the rides and activities around Sesame Street and the Harry Potter attractions. The boy was fortunate enough to get pictures with Elmo, Cookie Monster, and a number of dance performers. We interacted with a lot of the park staff, asking questions and getting help with some of the "magic" tricks that we could do. The lines for the handful of toddler-appropriate rides we stood in moved generally well, only stopping when there was a small accident1. As one would presume with theme parks, everything was priced beyond comprehension. 650円 ($6 USD) for a 250mL cup of "Butterbeer" and 925円 ($8.50 USD) for a single postcard that you can mail to someone in the country2. But price gouging is to be expected. People are paying for memories. The products are secondary.

Disney was similar, in that we could get some pictures of the boy with Elastigirl in her red outfit, the "cast" were all incredibly friendly, and the prices were at least triple what you would expect to pay anywhere else. However, Disney theme parks are quite a bit different from anywhere else (that I've experienced) primarily due to their attention to detail. Every aspect of a Disney theme park is considered with such meticulosity that every detail of every object in sight involved a great deal of fussiness. The buildings show no sign of modern construction techniques nor is any visible aspect out of character. There is not one "normal" streetlight in the entire park. Every character statue, assuming they're bipedal, is standing straight with head raised to look just over the horizon and their shoulders are back. Even the visible nails and screws that are used on the buildings and furniture are unique to Disney. Nothing happens in a Disney park without a remarkable amount of pre-planning.

USJ3, on the other hand, cares about the look of their sets … but not nearly as much. There's patches of natural rust next to almost pristine paint on metal railings. The backside of Hogwarts Castle, which is clearly visible when walking through the snaking waiting line course, consists of industrial cinderblocks painted white whereas the rest of the castle looks like a castle. Outdoor play areas for young children have some character-based flourish, but nothing is so unique that it wouldn't be seen at a regional amusement park. Heck, parked outside the 50s diner they have a 1954 Corvette convertible, a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, and a Bill Boyer-designed 1963 Ford Thunderbird. Sure, one could make the case that a 50s-style diner would still exist in 1962, when the '63 Thunderbird hit the market, but you can bet good money that any car parked outside a period-specific restaurant at Disney would be 100% confined to that period.

Naturally, these little differences do not necessarily detract from how much a person can enjoy the atmosphere of Universal Studios. Reiko and I both agree that we probably had more fun at USJ than either DisneyLand or DisneySea this year despite the semi-planned nature of the trip to Osaka. Metal rusts. The partially-obscured back-ends of buildings are irrelevant when it's the façade and interior that people are more interested in. And how many people of theme park visiting age can really spot from a distance the difference between a car from the 50s and a car from the 60s and genuinely give a darn?

I spot these things because this is part of who I am. The little details that go into everything fascinate me. What are the characters in movies doing while the main speakers are hogging the attention? What rarely-eaten garnishes were put on the plate next to the main dish? What kind of trim panelling was used around a door at a friend's house? How do Acer, Fujitsu, and Toshiba notebooks differ from a MacBook? All of these receive some degree of attention from me because I like seeing how people create things. Observing the creations of others generally provides a perspective on what's important at any given time. Disney wants everyone from the disinterested adolescent playing Nintendo Wii to the super-fan-OCD-types to think they're in a magical place where everything is unique and special, especially the mundane things that we typically ignore. Universal Studios wants everyone to enjoy activities based on blockbuster movies and children's characters, knowing that most people couldn't tell you the type of tires that Dr. Emmett Brown had installed on his modified 1981 DeLorean DMC-124.

There are pros and cons to each approach. For me, I think the lack of "perfection" at Universal Studios actually helped me enjoy the short visit a bit more.

  1. One boy didn't go down a slide properly and the friction caused him to flip face first onto the surface and skid down the rest of the way with his forehead acting as a brake. It was quite the sight to see. Every parent in the vicinity made a collective "Ooh!".

  2. A postage stamp for a postcard is 42円 from a convenience store and Sesame Street postcards can be had at fifteen for 100円 (15 for a buck!) at the dollar store. 925円 for a single sheet of paper with a picture on it? Just because it's from a theme park? Get out of here!

  3. USJ is what people call "Universal Studios Japan" over here. It's just easier to say three letters than nine syllables. Also, saying the full name with a Japanese tongue requires just over two seconds, which is a long time to say any single noun in Japanese.

  4. Goodyear Eagle GTs, on stock DMC rims.